The Irish Assassins: Conspiracy, Revenge and the Phoenix Park Murders That Stunned Victorian England by Julie Kavanagh

An historical true crime from the 19th century

On the evening of May 6, 1882, Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Burke, Chief Secretary and Undersecretary for Ireland were strolling through Phoenix Park, Dublin. They were ambushed and were both stabbed to death. Who murdered them and why?

To answer these questions, Ms Kavanagh takes us on a journey through history, through the events that led to the murders and through their consequences.

At the time of the murders, Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish nationalist politician who served as a Member of Parliament between 1875 and 1882 and acted as the Leader of the Home Rule League from 1880 to 1882, and British Prime Minister William Gladstone had been working together to try to achieve peace and independence in Ireland. Lord Frederick Cavendish, as Gladstone’s protégé, was to play an instrumental role. These two murders destroyed the possibility of peace for decades, and almost brought down the government.

But, as Ms Kavanagh details, the story begins much earlier. Centuries of oppression, famine and mass evictions left the Irish with few choices. The people could starve, emigrate, or fight for independence. Many of those who emigrated (especially to America) supported Irish independence and provided funds for the fight. The murders of Cavendish and Burke were carried out by two assassins, members of the Irish National Invincibles, using surgical knives.

The investigation was led by Superintendent John Mallon, and by playing suspects off against each other, several were arrested and subsequently hanged.

Those are essentially the facts, but Ms Kavanagh brings the period to life with her descriptions of the key players and significant events in their lives. We learn of Queen Victoria’s interest, of Gladstone’s struggles to broker a deal, of Charles Stewart Parnell’s affair with Katharine O’Shea. But my particular interest was in the background and lives of people, such as Michael Davitt.

The author’s note, at the end of the book, is a particular highlight.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Grove Atlantic for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith